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4 cooking skills for clueless chef

4 Basic Cooking Skills for the Aspiring Chef

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If you’re like many modern cooking enthusiasts, you might decide, one free afternoon, to cook something special for your husband. Men like food, after all, and what better way to welcome him home than with a delightful and romantic dinner for two that you prepared yourself? You arrange a babysitter for the kids and pull out your cookbooks and a memo pad to make a shopping list. You open the book, and scan through the pictures until you find one you really like. Then you stop. You can’t read it. The ingredients list has things you’ve never heard of before, and the directions might as well be written in a foreign language.

language of cooking

In fact, you might say the directions are written in a foreign language: the language of cookery, a blend of French, Italian, Greek, German, and English, with a few other languages peppered in for good measure. This article won’t help you figure out where to buy calamari or whether your husband would like tripe or not (trust me, he probably wouldn’t). But it will help you understand four of the most common—and most confusing—cooking terms. Read on, and impress your friends with your knowledge of simmered, steamed, sauted, and julienne.

Simmering

simmering

Simmering ought to be a fairly simple process, but unfortunately, most people who’ve never cooked before confuse it with boiling. If a recipe says that something should be simmered, boiling it instead could spoil the entire dish.

Simmering involves letting something, usually liquid, sit for a relatively long time (10 minutes to 2 hours or thereabouts) on very low heat. The surface of the liquid should have small bubbles and ripples, but NOT the large bubbles of a rolling boil.

boiling water

Here’s an exercise to help you practice simmering something. We’re going to start with water, since when you have a soup or stew, it can be hard to tell if something is simmering or not. You want to be confident that you know what a simmer is.

First, bring a pot of water to a boil. When simmering something, you would never bring it to a boil first, but we want you to see the difference between a simmer and a boil. So bring your water to a boil. Watch the surface. Familiarize yourself with what a boil looks like. Now. Very slowly, turn the heat down, a tiny bit at a time, until the water isn’t boiling anymore. The surface of the water should not be perfectly flat right now. Instead, there should be some disturbance, tiny bubbles making their way up from the bottoms and sides and rippling the surface just a bit. But not too much.

Turn the heat back up, slowly, and watch it leap into a boil again. Do you see the difference? Continue doing this—turning the heat down, then up, then down again—until you are confident you know the difference between a simmer and a boil. Then, start with a pot of fresh, cold water, and try to bring it up to a simmer without letting it boil. It may take several tries before you can do that, but once you can, you may consider yourself a Master Chef of the Simmer. Congratulations!

Steaming

steamed-vegetables

Steaming vegetables is the healthiest and tastiest way of eating them. They’re so fresh they’re almost—but not quite—raw, and all of the vitamins and minerals and flavor is preserved intact. Boiling, baking, and frying all destroy those vitamins, minerals, and flavor.

To steam vegetables, simply put them into a pot that has a lid. The lid is very important. Add about an inch of water to the bottom, just enough to keep them from sticking, and turn the heat on very low. As the water begins to evaporate, the lid will catch the steam and keep it in the pot, and the steam will actually cook the vegetables. When you think the vegetables are cooked, lift the lid just long enough to test them with a fork; they should be soft enough to be speared easily, but still firm enough to hold their shape. You don’t want them to be mushy.

Steaming is not only the healthiest way of cooking vegetables, it’s also the prettiest. Who could resist the vibrant green of broccoli, or that rich orange of carrots? If you really must add an unhealthy little something, pour a little cream or half-and-half over steamed carrots. The natural sweetness of the carrots is brought out by steaming and enhanced by the cream; you won’t know whether to serve them for dinner or desert!

Saute

sauteing

More people are frightened by the word “saute” than perhaps any other cookery word except julienne. And yet, there is no reason why they should be. It isn’t difficult to saute something. You do have to stand there and watch it, though, constantly.

To practice, let’s saute some mushrooms with onion and garlic. Once these are sauted, they can be added to any dish, from soup to rice to stir-fry. Sauteing them is necessary if you want to add them to an already cooked dish, but even if you want to add them to a stir-fry, it’s a good idea. Sauteing something adds a little burst of flavor that can’t be beat.

To begin, add a little oil, perhaps a teaspoon, to a skillet, but don’t turn the heat on just yet. Cast iron is the best if it’s seasoned properly, but any skillet or frying pan will work. Chop half a medium onion into pieces, longer if you want to be aware of the onions, smaller if you want them to disappear into the dish. Add the onions to the oil in the skillet or frying pan. The heat still should not be on. Mince two or three cloves of garlic (more if you’re a garlic lover or afraid of vampires), and add that to the skillet. We’re almost ready to turn on the heat.

saute mushrooms

Lightly rinse six or eight (or ten, or twelve) medium mushrooms (never wash or soak mushrooms, because they absorb so much water). Slice them evenly. It doesn’t really matter what size; smaller if you just want the flavor, larger if you want to be able to bite into the mushroom. No, the important thing is that you cut them as evenly as possible. Put the mushroom slices in a bowl and set them to the side. Don’t add them to the skillet just yet.

Now, turn your burner on high for a couple of minutes. Using a spatula, preferably stainless steel (although any kind will work), keep the onions and garlic moving in the oil as it gets hot. After a while, you’ll begin to develop your own rhythm for this, but when you’re just beginning, the main thing to remember is to keep the onions and garlic from sitting still too long, and to make sure all sides have a chance to get lightly browned.

When your onions and garlic are just starting to develop a light brownish color, add the mushrooms and reduce the heat to medium. Mushrooms are very delicate, so don’t stir them too vigorously, or they’ll break into little pieces. That’s fine, if that’s what you want, but you can’t bite into them then. So stir gently, but do keep stirring. Make sure that nothing has a chance to sit still too long. This is the way to keep things from burning.

After a few minutes, your mushrooms should have shriveled down to something that looks rather unappetizing (but tastes absolutely delicious!). At this point, you have a choice. You can turn off the heat completely, and add your now-sauted mushrooms with onion and garlic to soups, stews, rice dishes or stir-fries. Or, you can turn down the heat until it’s as low as it can go without actually being off, and add a cup of heavy cream. Stir gently, and let the cream and mushrooms sit together over that very low heat until the cream is warm and imbued with the flavors of mushrooms, garlic, and onions. You now have a sauce that you can spoon over chicken, beef, pork, or fish, or add to pasta, potatoes, or even steamed vegetables. This is how you make a base for a cream of mushroom soup (although you would want to use twice as many mushrooms, garlic, and onions, and one and a half cups of heavy cream).

Sauteing is nothing to be afraid of, and it’s one of the most useful skills for preparing elegant meals.

Julienne

julienne

This is the simplest and the hardest of the processes we’ve examined so far. The simplest, because all julienne means is cutting vegetables into long, thin strips; the hardest, because if you’ve ever tried to cut a carrot into long, thin strips, you know it’s no walk in the park.

julienne-celery
Let’s begin with something much easier to julienne; a stalk of celery. Take a stalk, wash it, and cut off the thick, fleshy white part at the bottom. Now cut it into 4″ long pieces. You should get two or three of these out of a stalk of celery. Lay the pieces on a cutting board, and with a small but very sharp knife, cut exactly down the middle of each one the long way, so that you now have two thin 4″ strips of celery, instead of one thick one. Take each of these smaller pieces and do the same thing, so that you have four thin strips of celery instead of two. If you have a large stalk of celery, you may repeat this process. But don’t go overboard. The key to vegetables julienne is to make them as thin as possible while still keeping them even and attractive.

Once you have celery down pat, you can practice with other vegetables (any vegetable can be julienned, except perhaps globe radishes), gradually working your way up through bell peppers, turnips, and potatoes, until you get to carrots. When it comes to making carrots julienne, the key is to have a large, strong, sharp chef’s knife. Smaller knives will be harder to use with carrots.

You now have basic knowledge of four important and sometimes scary kitchen processes. Pat yourself on the back and bask in your newfound knowledge! And steer clear of recipes that call for tripe.

essential-cooking-items

Kitchen Essentials: 10 Items a Cook Should Never Be Without

Like dad always said, you need the right tool for the job. Lopsided birdhouses aside, the same is absolutely true in the kitchen. The right tools will speed preparation and lessen the chance your endeavor will end up a bust (or on fire – you know who you are).

1) Cast Iron Skillet

vintage enameled skilletCast iron is the seasoned cook’s (pun intended) pan of choice for a variety of reasons. First, it heats evenly and maintains that heat without sudden fluctuations. No more half burned and half raw pancakes! Second, it adds flavor to whatever you’re cooking as well as a little iron content to the nutritional value of the food. Third, it doubles as a weapon should the need arise. Whatever you do, don’t put a cast iron pan in the dishwasher. Simply wait until it cools, remove solids and wipe it clean. When shopping, look for a 10” to 12” skillet from a well-known manufacturer. Whether the pan is described as “pre-seasoned” on the label or not, you will benefit from taking the time to season it yourself.  Do a bit a research and choose the method that works for you.

2) Variable Speed Stand Mixer

variable speed stand mixerMixers come in many shapes and sizes and have different uses. A hand mixer is fine for making instant pudding, but for kneading bread you need something whose motor won’t burn up at the sight of a hardy dough. Get a good stand mixer that comes with different attachments, a whisk, dough hook, and a paddle. Make sure the mixer has at least three speeds, low, medium, and high are fine. The settings roughly translate to stir, mix, and beat. A locking mechanism is also a good idea if you plan on using it to knead dough of any kind.  As budget allows and cooking skills soar, additional attachments are a good idea, such as the self-scraping paddle, pasta rolling machine, meat grinder, and bowl shield.

3) Microplane

microplaneNope, it’s not a woodworking tool. A kitchen microplane is basically a grater with much smaller openings. Why would a cook need such a thing? You can grate hard cheeses very finely to top pasta or soup; add fresh nutmeg to cream sauces, never have to mince or smash garlic again, and much more! Microplanes are very versatile in the kitchen and can save steps in your favorite recipes. Throw away any garlic “gadget” you already own and replace it with a microplane. Your garlic and ginger will blend seamlessly in sauces thanks to the fine texture.

4) Knives

knivesA word about knives: less is more! If space is an issue (and let’s face it, in whose kitchen is space NOT an issue) you can truly get by with one knife. If you are limited by space and budget to just one knife, make it a chef’s knife, and purchase it from a restaurant supply store, not the local big box retailer. You can do just about anything you need to with just a chef’s knife, and an inexpensive one at that. If you have a bit of room to expand your collection, pick up a serrated knife for breads and cakes, a paring knife for very small jobs, and a boning knife for, well, deboning things.  If you want to get fancy, add a cleaver and filet knife to your repertoire. That’s it. That is all you need. Make sure any knife you purchase feels good in your hand, is nicely balanced, and isn’t an overpriced import. Finally, never, EVER put a knife in the dishwasher because it dulls the blade and loosens the handle.

5) Measuring Devices

measuring devicesThere are multiple ways to measure ingredients for a recipe: Liquid, dry, volume, or weight. Make sure you’re using the correct equipment for the job. Tablespoon and teaspoon do not refer (any more at least) to a spoon from your flatware set. Instead, use a set of spoons for dry measure to get your proportions correct. Small pitchers or beakers with graduated markings on the side are for liquid measurement only. Thusly, small cups with handles and no graduated markings are for dry-goods measurement only. The two are not interchangeable. For the best results, measure everything by weight on a kitchen scale.

6) Thermometers

thermometersTemperature matters, not only in cooking things like fudge and meat, but also in a larger scale like your refrigerator and your oven. Refrigerators and ovens both cycle, that is, their temperatures do not remain constant while in use. Keep a thermometer made for each respective environment on hand in each appliance and check them regularly to insure proper cooling and cooking. You’ll also need an instant read candy and oil thermometer for frying and precise stove top cooking. A digital thermometer with alert and alarm settings with a nylon covered cord is ideal. You can use this type of thermometer to insure your expensive prime rib does not turn into shoe leather and your candy hasn’t moved in to the break your teeth stage.

7) Spatulas, Tongs, and Whisks

spatualsMost people have a jungle of cooking utensils so it is hard to find the right tool when they need it. Let’s deforest a bit and weed it down to the essentials you really need. Keep a metal spatula with a wide base on hand for jobs that do not come into contact with non-stick surfaces, life ferrying French fries from a baking sheet or flipping burgers in your new cast iron pan. Get a plastic spatula with a thick handle and well-proportioned base for the same purpose to use on non-stick surfaces. The same goes for tongs and whisks, you need at least one set with plastic ends and one with metal. Last, you need at least one soft sided silicone or rubber spatula for scraping down bowls and getting that last drop of brownie batter into your pan (or mouth).

8) Heavy Bottomed Pots

heavy bottom potThere is no reason to have a set of non-stick pots, they don’t last and are usually too thin to heat efficiently. What you do need is a set of heavy-bottomed, restaurant grade pots with secure handles and tight-fitting lids. The heavy bottom ensures a quality pot, even heating, and the ability to stand up to high heat without warping. Pots are for cooking things of volume with liquid, thus the frivolity of non-stick in such a situation. Make a set with a large Dutch oven, a 3 quart, 2 quart, and 1 quart pot to have all your culinary bases covered. This is a no frills purchase, a chef’s name or fancy color won’t improve your food or get you out of the kitchen any faster. Restaurant grade pots are made to be used for hours every day and stand up to scouring and storing. The average person who uses a few pots four days a week will only ever need to purchase one set.

9) Skillets

skilletsWhile cast iron and professional pots will take you a long way in your foodie adventures, some applications still call for a non-stick surface.  Look for a 12” or 14” skillet with sloped slides made of anodized aluminum. The anodized aluminum will keep its coating longer than less expensive models. Like your knives and pots, do no put your non-stick items in the dishwasher, the detergent is too harsh and will reduce the life of your pans. Sloped sides are important for sliding food out without breaking delicate items like fish and eggs. Look for a nice heavy bottom for heat distribution and a solid well attached handle with insulation so the heat does not travel up and cause burns. Get another skillet with the same qualities but without a non-stick surface and with a handle that is oven safe.  That way you can create dishes that require a good sear followed by a short bake in a single pan. This pan will move seamlessly from stove-top to oven.

10) Baking Pans

baking pansLarger is better when talking about baking sheets. Get two with rolled edges and short sides. Look for heavy gauge aluminum that doesn’t sound like Hollywood thunder sound effects when your shake it. It should be sturdy enough to hold heavy items without buckling. You need two so you can easily complete recipes that call for more space than one baking sheet provides, like cookies. Air filled pans and other fad bakeware are not necessary for the savvy cook, neither is non-stick when it comes to baking sheets. Parchment paper will keep items like cookies from sticking without the use of cooking spray, which gives pans their aged and darkened appearance. As far as specialty bakeware, good choices are a loaf pan or two, muffin tins, and cake pans. Bare aluminum or non-stick is a personal preference with these types of pans.

A Good Place To Start

Though not an exhaustive list, these items will give a burgeoning cook or newlyweds looking to fill their cabinets a good start. Conserve space and choose wisely, these well planned purchases can last a lifetime, or at least until you hit the lottery and hire a personal chef.

It’s all in the Seasoning: Caring for your Cast Iron Cookware (Dutch oven, Pot or Pan)

WOC-A1737018_1213201014917_fullOwning cast iron cookware is great. You can make almost anything in it, and it requires almost no maintaining.

You hear statements like this all the time, and it’s true… but notice the word “almost”. That word is a killer.

Why?

Well, because you do have to care for your cast iron. If it’s a Dutch oven, cast iron cooking pot, a pan or some other great piece of cast-iron cookware, you still need to clean and care for it.

Cast iron cookware requires seasoning.

Unfortunately, it’s not a spice. It’s the protective coating that you apply to your cookware. In today’s world, most cookware will come pre-seasoned (meaning that a coating has been applied to the cookware by the manufacturer).  Even if you have pre-seasoned cookware, at some point you’re going to burn that blueberry cobbler and will need to re-season.

Seasoning starts with washing your cast iron Dutch oven or cookware with soap and water. This is the one and only time where soap should come in contact with your oven. The basic idea is to get the pan clean and back to the metal finish. Wash and prepare your oven. You can use an abrasive cleaning utensil like steel wool, or a coarse sponge. Clean, clean, clean.

Once it’s clean to your satisfaction, towel-dry the cookware. Make sure that the cookware is free of soap and water.

After cleaning, comes the fun part. Heat up your oven or grill. Between 375-450 degrees will work.

A trick I learned a few years ago is to place the (un-oiled) cast iron inside of the heating element for a few minutes (until it’s warm to the touch).  Even after drying the metal moisture can still linger. This will remove any residual moisture for you and ensure a lasting seasoning.

Remove your cookware from the oven and let it cool.

Next, use a paper towel or non-abrasive cloth to coat the cookware in cooking oil (I use vegetable oil, but you can certainly vary the oil to your liking). Place the oiled oven back inside the heat source.

Leave the cookware in the oven for no less than 1 hour.  Turn off the oven but do not remove the cookware.  You will need to wait until the cast-iron has cooled off sufficiently. This should be at least another hour.

A helpful hint: the first few times you cook after the seasoning process, make something with a lot of grease or fat (like bacon). It helps to ensure you have a nice coating inside your cookware to get you started.

Good seasoning can last a lifetime. Or, at least, until the next time you make blueberry cobbler.